Thursday, December 23, 2010

'Tis the Season

Wow - hard to believe another year has come and gone, and harder to believe I've been doing this blog for two years.  It's been a long and wonderful journey, and reading back, I can see that - bit by bit - my knowledge base has grown and I've added tools to my bag.  There's still a long road and a lot of blogging ahead; one of the great things about this job is that there's always a horse who'll defy all the rules or a saddle that will bring an innovative answer to a real head-scratcher of a problem ... always something new to learn.

So here's wishing you all the happiest of holidays, whatever you may celebrate (and if it was Hanukka, belated wishes).  Here's hoping the new year brings a greater dose of wisdom, tolerance and kindness to those who need it most, and will give us all the eyes to see the joy and beauty in our everyday lives, and remind us how very lucky we are to spend some time together on this plane. 

Peace, all.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Saddle Fitting for the Endurance Horse by Nancy Okun

Here's another "Guest Blogger" entry - this time, from my co-worker, Nancy Okun.  In addition to her saddle fitting work here at the shop, she's also an endurance and competitive trail rider.  If she's not actually competing at a ride, you can bet she'll be volunteering or crewing for a friend who is competing ... so she has plenty of personal experience in the realm of saddles that works for a horse and rider over the long haul.  She's helped literally hundreds of our customers find the right trail saddle, and shares some interesting insights into the saddle needs of the competitive trail / endurance horse and rider.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Pros and Cons of the Template (and The Ultimate Kicker)

We have a customer who's been sending us videos of various saddle fitters in action.  I always enjoy seeing other fitters work, because I usually pick up some useful information or find a new way of addressing a fitting issue ... so I've been watching them whenever I have a spare moment.  One of these fitters takes very detailed templates - in addition to the measurements we ask for (3 fingers' width behind the rear edge of the scapula, lowest point of the back and topline), she does a tracing every few inches along the back, as well as taking longitudinal tracings on each side, midpoint of the longissimus muscle.  When she has her full set of tracings, she cuts them out, flips the saddle upside down, and "fits" the tracings into the panels.  Based on this method, she will assess the fit of an individual saddle, note where it needs to be flocked, and judge its suitability for the horse.  She then puts the saddle on the horse, ungirthed, and finishes the assessment.  I'd imagine that, at some point, she has the rider try the saddle, but I've yet to see video of that.

There are plenty of good things to be said about this method.  It's a painstaking, old-school way of doing things that's not seen much these days; it's something of a lost art and requires a lot of attention to detail, and it gives you a pretty detailed map of the horse's back. (Frank Baines Saddlery is about the only place I know of that still asks for templates like this, and only when they're making a bench-made saddle.)  You can use this method to assess saddle fit, or to make flocking adjustments if the horse isn't available.  It's also handy for the customer to have such a comprehensive template when they're saddle shopping.  But there is one real drawback:  the template is taken when the horse is standing still ... and what we need is something that fits your horse in motion.  Yes, you can get an idea if the saddle is likely to fit the horse using the templates - we do just that all the time with our long-distance customers, using our 3-measurement template.  However, using the template is only step one of the whole process.

The next step is to put the saddle on the horse and girth it up.  Remember, flocking is soft (or ought to be, anyway) and will shift and compress under pressure.  What looks like it might cause a fitting issue when comparing the saddle to the template can become a total non-issue when the saddle's actually on the horse and girthed to riding tightness.

The next step is to get the rider up and the horse in motion.  Some horse's backs change quite radically when they start moving (this will be the subject of one of my future blog posts, so stay tuned!), and the saddle that looked pretty darn good compared to the template or while the horse is standing in the crossties can get ruled out pretty quickly when the cantle starts popping or it scoots up on the shoulder when the horse is being ridden.  I've seen it happen time and again:  I SO wish I had a dollar for every time I've assessed the horse's fitting needs based on the "still" back and template and lugged likely saddles down from the shop to the indoor ... and then lugged them back up the stairs when the active fit proved them unsuitable.  Don't get me wrong - it doesn't always play out that way.  Sometimes the first saddle I choose is the right one (and the more I do this, the more often that happens) ... but in all honesty, it's just as likely to be the second saddle ... or the third ... or ... And on the other hand, a saddle that looks pretty "meh" when compared to the template or when sitting on the horse in the ties can be transformed into utter perfection when the rider's up and the horse is moving.  I've spent plenty of time haring back up the stairs to grab that saddle I'd given the thumbs-down in the initial go-round, too.

The final step is to have the rider really ride the saddle four or five or six times.  The saddle that seems great on the first or second ride may take care of an existing fitting problem ... but by the third or fourth ride, it may be creating new issues of its own.  Until the saddle's really been ridden, you just can't tell.

And here, gentle readers, is the Ultimate Kicker:  it all comes down to what the horse and rider think.  I can spout saddle fitting theory and physics and geometry, I can trot out evidence both scientific and empirical, I can make diagrams and write blogs and juggle saddles and tap dance ... and I've seen saddles that have defied ALL these things and been the one that made the horse and rider blissfully happy.  When you get down to where the cheese binds, my opinion matters not one whit. Horse and rider have the last say.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Quelle Belle Surprise!

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from a young French blogger/dressage rider named Eugénie, asking if she could translate one of my blog posts into French.  According to her, saddle fitting is something that's "almost unknown in France", and she was hoping to raise awareness, at least among her readership.  I was very flattered - I mean, to me, having people actually want to read my blog is very, very gratifying; so to find that someone wants to go to the effort of translating it into another language is high praise indeed.  I've been visiting Eugénie's blog and having a great time reading through it with the aid of my rudimentary French and a lot of help from Google Translations.  So for those of you who speak the language (or who'd like to get a taste of Eugénie's very personable writing), stop by and take a look:!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Finite Life of a Saddle

Some saddles seem to last forever.  I've seen some venerable relics some across my bench - Passiers and Frank Baineses and Stubbens of 1970s vintage, some on their last legs, and some still in serviceably sound (though cosmetically challenged) condition.  Eventually, though, they all get to the point of being too old to continue.  Some fall victim to an accident, some are retired when the horse they were used on is sold or passes on, and some just flat wear out.

A saddle's useful life is determined in a large part by three things:  first, its initial quality.  Superior materials and workmanship will create a product that has a far greater chance of standing up to the test of time than inferior material and mediocre workmanship.  The second factor is the use it receives.  As we saw with Jenny Kimberly's saddle (mentioned here), "extreme riding" is hard on a saddle and will effect its lifespan, or at least the lifespan of its components.  The third factor is the care it receives - if it's cleaned and conditioned regularly, has the flocking maintained regularly and is stored in a reasonably protected environment, its useful life will (or should) span many, many years.

But I'll repeat:  even for the most pampered saddle, there will come a time when it's no longer "serviceably sound for its intended use".  Sometimes it's hard to determine when the time has come to retire it ... even for a professional.

This saddle was in the shop on consignment.  It's a Michael Stokes Centaur, made in the UK, a good example of a high-quality saddle that has seen good care, a long life and a lot of use (we're guessing it's at least 10 or 12 years old, if not more).

The saddle passed our usual safety check and had gone out on trial about 8 times before the right person and horse found it. But before the sale was finalized, however, the customer wanted me to check the tree. It seems there was a rather unsettling creaking noise ...

Flexing the tree did make it creak, and creak considerably. I dropped the panels and peeled back the gullet cover but didn't find any obvious cracks or loose rivets, and the lower head plate was sound. However, I did find just the slightest give somewhere when I flexed the head plate ... it creaked, but I couldn't pinpoint the cause.  Any sort of give in that area indicates a major safety issue, so I was really determined to find out what was going on. I also noticed that there were two rather significant chips taken out of the tree in the cantle area (though those seemed unrelated to the problem, and I honestly don't know how they'd have gotten there):

Further staple pulling and leather peeling resulted in some pretty substantial wood chips coming out of the tree:

This sort of chipping is not normal when you're just pulling staples.  It really made me wonder about the integrity of the tree (dry rot, perhaps?); you'll often get ugly holes if you're pulling escutcheon pins, but staples usually come out pretty cleanly, leaving only little holes behind.  I was starting to worry about the advisibility of reconstructing the saddle even if I found no major damage ... but I still hadn't found what was causing the creaking noise, so I kept at it. 

I pulled the seat foam off the pommel area and started to pry loose the webbing.  The chipping increased quite dramatically in the "high staple" area (you can see a sizeable piece of wood between the legs of the staple near my thumb):

The upper head plate was intact, but when I pulled more staples and peeled back the leather from the rail just above the left stirrup bar, I found the problem:

The damage could have come from the stirrup catching on something and the horse pulling backwards / sideways, or it could have just been fatigue from constant use (remember, this is the left stirrup bar).  The right rail was starting to bulge in the same area, though it hadn't actually cracked.  I'm really glad the customer decided to have the noise checked.  Sometimes a creak is nothing more than a loose rivet or the webbing rubbing on something ... and sometimes it's not.  But without dropping the panels and exposing the tree (and sometimes, some determined digging), you can't tell for sure.  Better safe than sorry.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Serge and Durability

Good saddles aren't cheap.  All of the new saddles we sell cost more than my first horse - and to be perfectly honest, they all cost more than my first car (which was a used 1973 Chevy Vega of dubious mechanical health).  So when you're buying something that's going to cost you a few weeks' (or more) worth of paychecks, you want it to last.  So what's the expected life span of a $3500 saddle with cloth panels?!

That's often the concern voiced by our customers when they see a saddle with serge panels.  Back in the day, English saddles had serge panels; at some point (and I'm still researching to find out why), leather became the material of choice.  And while leather panels are still the norm, serge is gaining in popularity, and with good reason.  Serge has a lot of benefits:  it breaks in more quickly, it helps wick sweat and dissipate heat, it's lighter weight, it helps keep the pad from slipping, it dries quickly, it can be a big help with a sensitive or "cold-backed" horse ... and it wears very, very well.

How well?  Ok - remember the "Black Country Rocks Customer Service" post I did a couple months ago?  (Click here if you need a refresher.)  Remember Jenny Kimberly's Black Country Equinox - the 4 and a half year old saddle that's been ridden (by a conservative estimate) more than 6800 miles? Take a look at these photos, and you can see for yourself how well serge panels hold up, even under some pretty extreme conditions.


Six thousand, eight hundred miles down, and a LOT more miles left in it.  That's a pretty convincing case for the durability of a serge panel!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Back Up and Running

Just wanted to let you all know that I'm back at it after getting notices that my blog had been flagged for distrubuting malware.  If any of you had issues because of this, I'm really, really, REALLY sorry.  I have to admit to being pretty technologically challenged, and I had no idea this was going on until one of my readers contacted me on the Ultimate Dressage bb to let me know.  I was mortified.  After almost two weeks of stumbling through tutorials and chat rooms and on-line help, I was finally able to find and remove the bad code (it was ridiculously easy once I found the right help site); I blew out all the gadgets or widgets or whatever they're called and decided to use a fresh new template (which I'm still not sure I really like).  I'm still not 100% certain how it happened, but I'm learning how to protect my blog from this sort of infection in the future.  I have a couple ideas rolling around in my head, so as soon as I get a lull in repairs, reflocks and helping customers find saddles, I'll be posting again.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What's In a Name?

Quite a lot, at least in my experience ...

One questions I'm asked quite frequently is, "What's the best saddle?"  And my answer always is, "The one that suits you and your horse the best."  This answer often elicits a blank stare from the questioner, since most people expect me to offer up a particular make of saddle ... and seem to want me to offer up one that will set them back about 4 or 5 mortgage payments.

Sorry, folks, but I'm not a Name Queen.

I run into tons of people who practically pee their pants when they hear "Devoucoux", "Hennig", "Hermes", "Schleese" or "Antares", and I have to confess:  I just don't get it.  It reminds me of the early 1980s, when everyone (male and female) was squealing over Jordache or Gloria Vanderbuilt or Calvin Klein jeans, and I was noodling along quite happily in my Levis and Wranglers.  They fit me better than anything with a designer label, wore like iron, and were less than half the price of the designer jeans.  "But they don't have a name," my friends would moan in despair.  My broke friends.  My broke friends who were always complaining about their uncomfortable designer jeans ...

Saddles are much the same.  Sure, you can pay $6000+ for a custom Hennig, or $4500+ for a custom Schleese (or Stackhouse, or County ...), BUT that doesn't guarantee that the saddle will suit you (or your horse) any better than an off-the-rack or bench-made saddle might.  You and your horse might be perfectly fitted with a Black Country, and Albion, a Frank Baines, or (gods forbid) a Duett or (I'm uttering blasphemy here) a Thorowgood or Wintec ...

Why?  Because most horse and rider combinations do. not. need. a. custom. saddle.  Many can be fit beautifully by an off-the-rack model and a little help from a fitter, and the rest are just dandy in a bench-made saddle.  Given the gazillion different saddle companies out there with a bazillion different models and a googolplex of fitting options, you can find a stock or bench-made model that will fit - there's no real need to go custom. 

But some folks are just incurable Name Queens, and in that sense, they need to be riding in the trendiest, most expensive, sought-after saddle out there.

One of my customers recently spent $3800 on a wide tree used Devoucoux dressage saddle to use for trail riding on her very round little Morab.  When I gave her the bad news (as gently as I could) that the saddle didn't come close to fitting and there was no way it could be made to fit, her response was, "I got a good deal on it though, right?"

The saddle was in lovely shape, and since they sell for well over $4000 new, at least I didn't have to tell her I hoped she'd gotten a kiss and dinner in the bargain.  "Well, yes, but since it doesn't fit ..."

"But it's a Devoucoux," she said.  "And I got a good deal on it."

For her, that was all that mattered.

I see this far more often than my saddle fitting soul would like.  People buy the name, and whether it fits the horse - or them - isn't really considered in the equation.  They have the cachet of saying they ride in a Devoucoux / Hennig / Schleese / Antares / CWD / Tad Coffin, and that's all that matters.  It may be wearing holes in their horse's back and they may have their underware fused to their naughty bits at the end of a ride, but by gods, they're riding in a ____________ (fill in the blank).  The world envies them, so having to wait 20 minutes after a ride before they can walk without screaming is of no consequence.  And if the horse is going belly-down in the dirt when he sees the saddle, well ... just put another pad under it.  Yes, they already use 4 pads with this saddle, but once Das Pferd gets to second level and develops a real topline, the saddle will fit beautifully.

Now, keep in mind that all of the saddles I've listed are absolutely perfect for some horses and riders - they fit well, and the pair performs beautifully in them.  But if they're not, they're worth no more to the individual horse and rider than the most humble old synthetic beater ... except in the mind of the Name Queen.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Black Country Rocks Customer Service

Customer service is lying in the gutter with multiple stab wounds.  It's going the way of the dodo, the bustle and the rotary-dial phone; finding a company that stands behind its products and goes above and beyond to keep the customer happy is more unusual than finding an ethical politician.  So when you run into it, you have to tell everyone.  So here's a little story about one of those rare gems:  Black Country Saddlery.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bad Intel

When I'm doing a saddle fitting, I depend pretty heavily on the rider to give me input and feedback.  I need to know how the saddle feels for them, how they feel about their position, and how they feel their horse is going.  This is especially true if we're working with someone long-distance:  templates, photos and rider input is all we have to go on.  However, some info is better than other info ... I'll give you a few scenarios to illustrate my point.


I recently had a fitting appointment with a woman who was looking for a dressage saddle.  I asked her what saddle fitting issues she'd been having in the past, and she replied that every saddle she tried on her horse was "too tight behind the shoulders".   She'd tried 5 or 6 different saddles in varying widths, but all had the same problem.  Since everything in saddle fitting can be open to interpretation, I took her word for it, though the horse didn't appear to have any major fitting issues.  I found a few saddles that looked like good candidates (and that she'd liked sitting in on the buck), so she tacked her horse up in the first one and started riding around the arena.  I watched as she walked and trotted, and the saddle looked like a pretty darn good fit - there was no popping in the cantle at the rising trot, the saddle wasn't slipping forward or backward (or rolling side-to-side), and the horse was moving out well.  The rider looked comfortable and balanced, too.  She cantered in both directions, and things were looking about perfect.  She brought her horse to the walk, let the reins out to the buckle, and got a free walk that should have scored a "10" in a dressage test.  I was about to tell her how good everything looked when I noticed that she was glaring down at the pommel of the saddle.

"This saddle is doing the same thing all the others did!"  she exclaimed.

I was totally flummoxed.  Everything looked perfect to my eye, and the horse sure seemed happy, so what in the world was she seeing?  "Could you show me what you mean?" I asked.

She tucked her whip under her thigh, leaned forward, and proceeded to stuff her fingers under the panels of the saddle, right under the tree points, behind the horse's shoulders.  "I can't get my hands in there!"

"Well," I relpied, "you're not really supposed to be able to."

"Why not?"  she countered.

Fortunately, I'm usually pretty good at thinking on my feet.  Since it would have been impolitic to say, "Well, you have your whole body weight in the saddle, which is weighing it down pretty effectively, so why would you think you should be able to fit your hands in there?!", I had to find another explanation.  Then, I noticed that she was wearing tall boots.  "Can you stick your hands down the top of your boot?"

"Of course not!"

"Do they fit well?"

"Of course!" she answered.

"Same sort of thing here," I told her.  "You want the saddle to fit like your boots:  not too tight, not too loose, no big gaps and no pinching."  I also explained about wanting even pressure under the entire length of the tree points, and how lack of pressure - or too much pressure - can cause problems.

I just have to wonder how many of the saddles she tried really did fit well ...

MORAL:  Your hands do not belong under your saddle - at least not when you're IN it.  Don't try to put them there.


I was chatting on the phone with a customer who'd sent photos and a template, discussing tree width.  She said she knew her horse wasn't happy in a medium-tree County, and when I saw the tracings, I could see why:  the tracings showed the horse to be a hoop tree candidate ... and at least an extra-wide hoop tree, at that.  When I relayed that information, there was a moment of silence on her end of the phone, then, "Oh." 

I blathered on quite happily, telling her which saddles offer the hoop tree, when she interrupted.

"There's no way my horse is that broad."

I said, "If your tracings are correct, we're looking at an extra-wide hoop ..."

"There is NO WAY my horse is that wide." 

"Well, I'm afraid the tracings I'm seeing are definitely matching the extra-wide ..."

"My. horse. is. not. that. fat,"  She said, a little shakily.

"Oh, width doesn't equate to fat," I explained.  "Lots of breeds are very well-sprung in the ribs and broad.  I see your mare is a Morgan - Arab cross, and both of those breeds tend to be ..."


I sighed mentally.  "Of course not - I wasn't inferring that at all, honestly.  Extra-wide trees don't ..."

"I just can't get my head around that," she said.  "My horse is only 14.3."

I plowed on.  "Height isn't much of an indicator of tree width, really.  Lots of the smaller breeds - smaller in height, I mean - are wider than the bigger breeds.  According to the tracings you sent ..."

"She's really NOT fat!" she wailed.  "If you're saying she's an extra-wide, it means you think she's FAT!"

"No, no, not at all," I assured her.  "You can see in the photos that she's really very fit.  It's just that she has the broad back that's pretty typical of her ..."

"I'll ... I'll need to call you back."  She sounded very close to tears.  "I just can't get my head around that.  Extra-wide?!?!"  And she hung up the phone.

MORAL:  Wide does not equal fat.


I was doing a fitting on a Morgan gelding who was ... well, let's say "conformationally challenged."  He was 15 h. at the withers and 15.2 h. at the croup (which was flat as a table); he had upright pasterns, an upright shoulder, a 6" long neck, long cannon bones, forelegs that appeared to come out of the same hole in an incredibly narrow chest, and almost no detectable hock.  "He's built like a saw horse," his owner explained, and I thought that was a pretty accurate description.  The owner said he needed a narrow tree, but when I looked at his back, I'd have said at least a medium-wide, if not wider.  I plunked the owner's existing saddle, an old medium-wide Albion Comfort, on his back and did a quick assessment.  It met all the criteria of the Heavy Seven, though a strip-flock was definitely in order. 

"Have you been having any problems with this saddle?"  I asked.

"No, not at all," she replied.  "But after realizing how narrow he is, I thought there was no way a medium-wide saddle should be fitting correctly."

"The Albions tend to run on the generous side when it comes to tree width," I said.  "He'd likely need a wide tree in some saddles."

"But look at how narrow he is!"  she insisted.

I looked at the horse.  That back was pretty broad, and when I turned to the owner to say as much, I realized that she was NOT looking at his back.  She was staring directly at his chest, and said,  "I'm surprised to hear you say the saddle fits well, considering ..."

"Well, when I say he's wide, I'm looking at his back ... not his chest."

The owner stepped up beside her horse's shoulder and gazed at his back.  "OH!  NOW I see what you mean ..."

MORAL:  In saddle fitting, it's the width of the BACK we consider.


As I said earlier, we do a lot of work with the help of photos.  When assessing fit, we ask for photos like these:

Sometimes, if rear panel contact is in question, we'll ask for photos like this:

But what we DON'T need are photos like these:

That's a cute face, but it tells me zip about saddle fitting needs or issues.

Again, a nice-looking horse, but I can tell nothing about what he might need for a saddle.

Ok, we have definite clearance over the withers, but that's about all I can tell ...

I can't even see the saddle, let alone the back ... impossible to tell anything about fit.  Nice tail, though ...

The saddle's not girthed up, and it's way too far forward.  I'm also hoping that the horse didn't take two big steps to his right and drop the saddle in that mud puddle ...

The red saddle nail tells me this is a Duett ... or an Albion ... or perhaps a Keiffer ... but that's all.

I'm not even totally sure what this one is ... I think it's a horse's back ...

Anyway, bottom line:  I need good info to do my job.  This doesn't mean professional photos or reams of poetry about how the saddle feels for you or a dissertation on how your horse is going ... but clear, concise input from you makes my job a ton easier, and increases the likelihood that your saddle search will be as short and painless as possible!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Symmetrical ... Or Not.

Most horses are sided, the same as most people.  Often, I find it's the left side that's dominant and bigger (and I have the templates to bear that out); but whether it's left or right side, their larger/dominant side is usually the side to which they bend and track well, while going in the opposite direction - and having to stretch that contracted, muscle-y side - is harder.  And whatever discipline we ride, one of our goals should be to make our horses as evenly developed as possible. (If this sounds familiar, I did touch on some of this in my "Ground Work and In-Hand Exercises" post from April of '09).  And to that end, dear readers, we do NOT want our saddles to be adjusted asymmetrically ... at least, unless we have a saddle fitter on retainer, and a huge disposable income and nothing better to spend it on than eternal saddle fit adjustments!

There are plenty of fitters out there who'll adjust your flocking - and in some cases, even your tree - to match your horse's asymmetries.  (NOTE:  Anyone who tries to adjust a spring tree asymmetrically will in all likelihood make the tree so it can't sucessfully be straightened, and it will probably never sit correctly again.  Most spring trees should only be adjusted once - symmetrically - no more than one tree size.)  And while there may be a short-term benefit to that, doing so - in my opinion - can cause more harm than it alleviates.  Why?  Consider this:

You have a nice mare who had some soundness issues that took about 6 months to correct.  As a result, her right side is considerably larger and more muscled than her left; she goes along quite happily to the right, but going left is a nightmare.  So you get a saddle that fits her right side well, but the left ... well, there's a 3/4" gap.  So the fitter says, "I can make that gap go away!"  and proceeds to either flock that side heavily to compensate, or tweaks the tree so the left side suits the lack of muscle.  The saddle fits perfectly, the fitter goes away, and you start working your mare five days a week.

For the first few weeks, things are going pretty well.  The mare's getting better about tracking left, her muscles are growing and she's getting much more balanced.  Then, you notice she's getting fussy about bending left, and she no longer picks up the left lead canter as easily as she did, and you're starting to feel as though you're sitting a bit crooked.  You run your hands down your mare's back under the front of the saddle, and notice that the left side feels awfully tight.  You remember that the saddle was fitted asymetrically, so you call your fitter to come address the issue.  Fitter comes out, adjusts the flock / tree, charges you between $100 and $400, and everything's fine.  A few more weeks down the road, the mare's starting to have issues going to the left again, and the left side of the saddle feels tight again.  You call your fitter, fitter comes, charges you another $100 - $400, and all's well.  A few more weeks pass, and the issues are starting again ... You call your fitter, but this time, your fitter can't get to you for a month.  So you soldier on, with your mare getting more and more sour about bending left ... and then bending right ... and then being saddled at all.  By the time your appointment rolls around, your mare's so sore and cranky that you have to cancel because your vet / chiro told you (after a $250 visit) that she at least two weeks off to heal - or worse, that she's seriously aggrivated whatever it was that caused the 6-month lay-up. Or perhaps your mare was in so much pain that she started bucking, launched you into the arena fence, and now you're laid up with a concussion / broken collar bone / broken ribs / separated shoulder (which isn't nearly as painful as the cost of a visit to the ER was).  You (and/or your mare) are out of commission, you've lost training time, and the asymmetry is still there.

Here's a second scenario:

Same mare, same issues, same asymmetry.  Again, you get a saddle that fits her right side well, but the left ... well, there's a 3/4" gap.  So your fitter says, "Why don't we address this issue with a shim pad?"  You buy a correction pad for $130, put 3 shims in to fill the gap, and off you go.  A couple weeks later, you notice the left side of the saddle's getting a little tight, so you remove one of the shims.  A few weeks later, the muscle's grown enough to remove another shim; finally, 10 or 12 or 14 weeks after the initial fitting, you can remove the last shim pad.  Your fitter comes out, tweaks the flock, charges you between $100 and $200, and you're good to go for about 6 or 8 months - longer, in some cases.

You do the math. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

Interpreting the Template

Saddle fitting templates can be a little like heiroglyphics:  if you don't know how to read them, they won't make much sense.  But unlike heiroglyphics, it doesn't require years of study to crack the code.  At Trumbull Mtn. Tack, we do the bulk of our business long-distance, through the use of templates and photos, so being able to read a template and understand how it relates to the accompanying photos is a requirement.  If you look at them as a whole, they can seem to be a whole bunch of unrelated lines ... but if you break each tracing down, it's pretty easy to decipher.

Let's take a look at an example:

The tracing marked #1 is taken 3 fingers' width behind the rear edge of the scapula.  This tracing shows the tree width that the horse needs, and if any modifications are needed to the front of the panels, such as a full front gusset or wither gussets.  In this case, wither gussets might be a good option, based on the "dips" in the tracing.

The #2 tracing gives an idea of the panel configuration needed.  In this case, the panels will need a bit of angle - we're not looking at a real "roof" back here, but it's not entirely flat, either.

The topline tracing, at the bottom of the template, shows how much curve the tree will have to have, and shows if rear panel modifications may be needed.  In this case, we're dealing with a good wither that's consdierably higher than the slightly "dippy" back, so we'll need a tree with some curve and a fairly generous rear gusset; there's a drop or 2 1/2" from the first tracing to the second.

So, if we start with tracing #1, the first thing we'll need to determine is tree width.  There are a couple different ways of determining this.  First is to use templates provided by the saddle companies.  Here, we're comparing it with the Frank Baines medium:

The template is slightly narrower than the first tracing, so let's try a Baines med-wide template:

Almost perfect.  There is that dip on the left side, but that can be dealt with either with flocking (if it's a long-standing issue that won't change) or a correction pad.

Just for giggles, let's see how this horse measures in the Black Country templates.  Here's the medium template:

Almost perfect.  Maybe just the tiniest bit narrow, but well within the acceptable parameters.  Now, compared to the Black Country med-wide:

Again, just about perfect - perhaps a teeny bit wide, but again, definitely acceptable.  And if you have to err one way or the other, wider is better than narrower, since you can add flock or use a thicker / correction pad.

Now, what if you don't have a saddle company's width templates, or what if the customer is looking for a used saddle?  Here's the method we use.  First, we get a "generic" reading by using the Wintec Gullet gauge:

To use it on a horse, you place the "legs" of the gauge in the spot where you'd take your first tracing (3 fingers' width behind the rear edge of the scapula, where the tree points ideally sit); the color indicated on the top left of the gauge will then tell you which gullet plate you'll need in the saddle.

Yellow is narrow, green is med-narrow, and so on.

When used on the tracing, it shows that it measures a medium-wide.

So we take the blue med-wide Wintec plate, and compare it to some different saddles.  Keep in mind that the gullet plate dips in a bit on the legs rather than running straight, so you have to look at the overall angle of the leg and discount the dip.

Here's the gullet compared with a med-wide Black Country Wexford (angle of the tree point is shown in green in all the following photos):

This tree is a bit narrower than what we'd need - probably would have to go to a wide tree in this particular saddle.

Next is a medium-wide Baines Enduro LDR:

Too narrow again - another saddle where we'd probably go up to a wide tree.

Here's a medium-wide Black Country Celeste (built on a hoop tree). 

The angle of the tree comes closer, but the full front gusset will make it fit less generously. (This horse isn't a good candidate for a hoop tree, but I wanted to toss this in just for comparison.)  The full front gusset is often a good fitting option for a withery horse, but the change in fit is something to keep in mind.

Here's another med-wide hoop tree (a Black Country Eloquence X this time):

This is very close to perfect ... IF the horse were a hoop tree candidate!

Here's a med-wide Albion SLK:

NOW we've found a good candidate - at least in the width department. 
Just for giggles, let's try a couple more.  Here's a med-wide Black Country Vinici ...
... which looks like another winner.
And finally, here's a med. tree Passier Corona with Freedom panels:

Yet another good possibility, though the Freedom panels might provide a little too much room in the pommel arch (similar to the problem with the hoop tree).

Now that we've decided on tree width, let's look at rear panel configuration.  There's a pretty wide variation in panel thickness, even among gusseted panels:


And since saddles are (for the most part) hand-crafted, there can be quite a lot of variation even in the same make and model.  The gussets below are all on Frank Baines Caprioles:

Since this horse has about 3.5" of drop, the saddle will need to have a pretty generous rear gusset. 

A plain panel (below) wouldn't begin to offer enough lift for the rear of the saddle:

Neither would a panel with a thin gusset:

You'd need a much thicker panel, like so:

Now, tree shape.  We'll need something with some scoop and perhaps a high head to accommodate the big difference between back and wither. 

This tree would be far too flat, and would bridge like a plank over a ditch:

As would this one:

This is closer:

As is this one:

Better yet:

But if I had to pull two off the rack - with no modifications - the two below would be my choices:

A Frank Baines Omni high head:

And an Albion SLK high head:

Both have a curved tree and a very generous rear panel, so - assuming the front panel configuration and tree width were correct, either of these would have a pretty good chance of working, based on the template.

Just one caveat here:  the template and photos only show the horse at one static moment in time - and fitting a moving horse with a rider up can be a whole different story.  Perhaps the horse lifts his back considerably when he starts to move, and the more curved trees tends to rock, or perhaps the rear gusset is a bit too thick, and makes the saddle sit pommel-low and jam in behind the horse's shoulders.  That's why we offer the week trial period, and ask for so many photos.  There may be one or two things you and your horse really like about a particular saddle, and one or two that you don't ... so sometimes we work through the process of elimination, trying this or that before we find the saddle with the right combination of everything for you and your horse.